The morning coffee had yet to complete the perk cycle when my 3-year-old son hollered, "Daddy! Come look!"
I get this request about 3,000 times a day. There was no reason to suspect I was being summoned to view anything more unusual than a Lego spaceship, a wooden-block spaceship, or a Pop-Tart spaceship. So I ignored him. How was I to know we'd had a death in the family?
"Daddy! Come look! Tibbish is sleeping!"
That's when I realized there was real trouble in the living room. If goldfish do sleep, they don't do it upside-down at the top of the tank. Not even if they're trained Hollywood stunt fish.
We'd purchased Tibbish several days before at Wal-Mart. My son liked him because he had a black spot on his back. I liked him because he cost 20 cents. Face it: there just aren't many 20-cent purchases that can thrill your child to the bone.
As we headed home, I asked my son what he'd be naming his new pal. He said, "Tibbish." At least that's what we thought he said. Maybe he was just clearing his throat or spitting up. Whatever the case, Tibbish it was.
If you have never owned goldfish, let me describe the experience to you in painstaking detail: You buy them, you take them home, you put them in water and they die. Not always right away, but soon, and almost always from underfeeding. All goldfish food boxes bear the bold-print warning "Do not overfeed!" But they don't say a danged thing about underfeeding.
Also, goldfish only die when they know their teensy bug-eyed corpses will be discovered by a small child.
"See, Daddy? Tibbish is sleeping."
"Yes, son," I replied. "He certainly is. Fish don't get more asleep than that."
Sensing that Tibbish would be napping for a while, my son ran off to destroy something in his room. Seizing the moment, I scooped up Tibbish, strolled ever-so-nonchalantly to the bathroom, held a brief funeral service over the porcelain goldfish depository so conveniently built into every home, and flushed the deceased to fish heaven.
It wasn't until mid-afternoon that my son discovered Tibbish had apparently roused from his snooze, taken a good look at his humble surroundings, and decided he'd be happier elsewhere.
"Daddy! Tibbish is gone!"
"Uh, yes, son. He had to, um, go away."
Now I probably could have said Elko, Nevada and that would have been the end of that. Instead, I chose to play Sunday-school teacher a job that suits me almost as well as nuclear scientist.
"Honey, Tibbish was sick, and now Jesus is taking care of him."
"Jesus make Tibbish better? Then Tibbish come back?"
"No sweetheart, Tibbish, er, lives with Jesus now."
"Tibbish mine! I want Tibbish! I don't like Jesus!"
Wonderful. Earlier in the hour, my son thought Jesus was a neat guy neater than Santa Claus, even who took care of Mommy, Daddy, and all his friends. Now I'd convinced the boy that Jesus is someone who swipes goldfish from little kids when they aren't looking.
"Daddy, go to Jesus' house and get Tibbish."
"Honey, I can't. Jesus lives very far away, up in the sky."
"Daddy, you take rocket ship to Jesus' house and get Tibbish, okay?"
Obviously, my son had no difficulty imagining me storming heaven armed with a light sword and a bullhorn: "All right, Jesus! We've got you surrounded! Let the fish hostage go and come out with your hands up!"
I was down to two options. I could continue trying to explain The Great Unknown to a 3-year-old ... or I could sneak out, buy another 20-cent goldfish, slip it into the tank, and spend the rest of the day celebrating Tibbish's miraculous return from the dead.
Call it a weakness, but I find it difficult to pass up any 20-cent solution.
So, a few hours later: "Honey! Look! Tibbish is back!"
"That not Tibbish. No spot. That's a baby. I don't want him! I want Tibbish!"
Happily for parents, even smart children have short attention spans. It wasn't long before my son started ignoring Baby just as he'd ignored Tibbish ... until he found his new goldfish sound asleep in the old, familiar back-float position.
Having learned my lesson, I took my son aside and explained, gently, that Baby wasn't asleep, but dead. As dead as Bambi's mother. As dead as the Wicked Witches of the East and West. As dead as Megalon the giant cockroach monster at the end of "Godzilla vs. Megalon." Dead.
My son thought about this for a few moments, then brightened up: "Daddy, Jesus can have him."
Together, we removed Baby from the tank, wrapped him in a napkin, went outside, and gave him a proper burial in the garden.
To this day, my son hasn't said another word about Baby. But he still talks about rescuing Tibbish from that fishnapping Jesus character.